Daniel Mallory Ortberg will return next week.
For years I have been ashamed of how I allowed a close male friend to treat me when I was in my 20s. “Jake” fell in love with me and reacted very angrily when I told him I’d like to remain friends. He’d lash out if he learned I’d done anything with another friend, and he’d turn vicious if that friend was male. I was always scared of upsetting him, because he had a really awful temper, which our mutual friends always downplayed. I eventually broke off contact after I was nearly raped and Jake told me I deserved it. Flash forward 20 years. I’m married to an amazing man and have great friends. Jake has become a much beloved public figure in the entertainment industry. He’s “woke,” challenges people like Louis C.K., and is, as he always was, very funny. My husband and friends adore him and regularly consume his material. I wither internally when one of them mentions Jake, because it’s difficult to hear the people I love praise him. Recently my husband surprised me with tickets to one of Jake’s appearances. A few of our good friends were also going. The thought of being in the same room (or theater) as Jake made me sick, and in the moment I’m ashamed to say I couldn’t explain why I didn’t want to go. I just refused to go, which was understandably frustrating to my husband. I don’t know what to do. I don’t want to dwell on Jake, but I owe the people I love an explanation.
—I Don’t Like This Act
I don’t think you do, really. I think you need to tell your husband the truth of your “friendship” with Jake, and ask that he tell your closest friends whichever version of this story you are comfortable is both true and also protective of your own privacy and emotional well-being. He is not going to be angry with you. There is always the chance that one or more of your friends will not be your friend afterward. They may say you are lying. They may ask why you waited so long to say something. Those people are real pieces of shit, and you’re better off finding out now than when you go abseiling together and they drop you for a laugh.
Twenty years ago, when you were both much younger, this man behaved abominably toward you. Finally you felt it was necessary to break contact entirely. The fact that his public persona (and, possibly, his fortysomething private persona) is in complete conflict with your painful memories means that you’re reminded constantly of something that brings you back to a terrible place.
I am so sorry about your experience, and I sense that your inner conflict is less about privacy and more about the worry that his conduct wasn’t that bad, that your reaction was outsized, and that, surely, 20 years later, you should have “a sense of proportion” about it. It’s not a “call Ronan Farrow” scenario, but there is a world of space for bad experiences with controlling and victim-blaming people between “everything is fine” and “I need to call a press conference.” Start with your husband. I hope you’ll be pleasantly surprised by his response.
My husband and I are in our 20s and have two young sons. Our family is going through some trying times since my side of the family has had multiple deaths this year, including my mother. We have also struggled with our eldest son’s behavior due to his neurological issues that can cause him to act out. I will admit that I have been very critical of our eldest (punishing him for getting into fistfights at school, refusing to clean his room for days, and leaving out choking hazards for the baby, as some examples). I sometimes get to the point of screaming because he does not listen. My son and I are going to therapy to help our relationship.
My husband feels caught in the middle between us. He has aired his frustration to me but wants outside guidance. I suggested therapy, and he has considered it, but what he wants more is guidance from a parental figure. Unfortunately, he was orphaned at age 10. One of his aunts became his guardian parent. She checked out of being an active parent to him when her husband died. My husband was a teen when this happened. Since then, she has moved to a remote area with her sister and has only had contact with her “real” children and grandchildren. He has tried to make plans with her and his other family members, but they always stand us up or avoid us when they are visiting our area. My husband reached out to his other aunts and uncles, saying that he wished he had some guidance from them. He received a response from a different aunt of his saying that she wished she had some guidance, too.
They have made it clear that they do not want anything to do with my husband. I understand that they are not obligated to have any contact with him as an adult, but it’s still shitty. My grandmother has offered to be there to support him if he ever needs it, but I do not want to put any further stress on her because she is grieving and dealing with health problems. I cannot think of a way to provide him with an “adultier adult” to be supportive of him outside of therapy. Do you have any ideas?
—My Husband Needs a Mentor
Let me address your stated question first: He is a grown man, and he can go to therapy. There are plenty of therapists who work with people who were raised by a collection of disinterested relatives and lack some vital information about their emotional health as a result.
When I first read your letter, I assumed your “eldest son” was a teenager. When I read it a second time, I realized you had only “two young sons.” You are behaving abusively toward a disabled child, and your husband’s frustrations about it seem extremely reasonable. I know that you are in therapy, but I think you and your son being in therapy together is a terrible idea. He cannot speak freely in that environment, and neither can you.
I do not want you to come away thinking you are a monster. I want you to know that you are sailing way, way too close to being a truly abusive parent, and your husband thinks that too but lacks the vocabulary and the confidence to say so. This is a wake-up call.
Individual therapy for all. Pull up your pants. Do better. Develop strategies for your reactive tendencies. Save your relationship with your son while he’s still young. Don’t waste any time.
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My grandparents abused my mother for years when she was a teenager. My grandfather would get drunk and hit her (I haven’t heard specifics, but my mother did let it slip that he would punch her every time she got back up until she stopped trying to get up). My grandmother turned her back on her daughter, did nothing, and has remained married to him. My grandfather pretended to get sober when I was born, so my mother tentatively continued a relationship with her parents and moved back into their home while pregnant (in large part because she had nowhere else to go). I was unaware of my grandparents’ abuse until I was around 15 or so and was somewhat shocked by the news. It was difficult to reconcile the sweet, caring grandparents who helped raise me with her stories of the narcissistic, heartless monsters who raised her. This has been all been compounded by the fact that we still attend family holidays, but under a strict “let’s pretend that didn’t happen” pretense.
Personally, I’ve been ready to cut off my grandparents since I first learned the news. Their behavior is abhorrent to me, and I don’t believe they appreciate just how lucky they are for getting away with this, consequence-free. I’m additionally enraged by their behavior because I saw my mother struggle with PTSD, and my grandparents were of little help then, even though they were the people who caused these issues. My grandfather has long since resumed drinking, though my grandmother pretends she doesn’t know. Most recently, my hatred for them has manifested itself in anger dreams where I call my grandmother a whore and beat my grandfather. Part of me feels guilty for having these dreams, but another part feels relieved for letting the “secret” out. Seeing as the holidays are coming up and I may be expected to make yet another visit, what should I do? Despite their behavior, I do love them for what they’ve done for me and for my memories of the good times.
—But They’re Also Assholes
If you are having anger dreams caused by hatred of people who made your mother’s life hell, it’s time to pull the plug on this relationship. It’s not real. Cherish your good memories of their conduct toward you, and pretend they’re dead.
Everyone and their brother knows that terrible parents sometimes become decent grandparents, because life is a rich tapestry. It’s a very different relationship, and people mellow with age. There are few people so evil they aren’t kind and good to someone. It would be a lot easier for the rest of us if that wasn’t true.
Don’t sit across the stuffing and smile brightly at some man who punched your mother until she couldn’t get up anymore. Ask your mother to spend Christmas with you instead. She will probably spend it with them. Don’t take any shit about it.
Dear Prudence Uncensored
Daniel Mallory Ortberg and Nicole Cliffe will return in December with Dear Prudence Uncensored—only for Slate Plus members.
In the meantime, read more of Nicole’s wisdom at Care and Feeding, Slate’s parenting advice column.
We have three girls, ages 9 to 12. Our youngest has a friend “Mia.” Mia is a sweet girl, but her mother is a nutcase. Mia can’t do anything or go anywhere without her 7-year-old brother, “Mike.” Mike is autistic. It isn’t a problem with barbecues or if there are other kids running around, but Mia is entering sleepover territory with our girls. Our girls want her to spend the night, but Mia’s mom refuses unless Mike comes. The girls have very little to do with Mike, and we would end up entertaining him separately all night. My husband suggested their mother just wants to get free babysitting, but she is adamant that Mia and Mike are a duo act only.
Mia has gotten to the point of tears in my presence because she can’t come over or enjoy her friends without her brother. She has confessed she hates Mike and hates her mom for loving him more than her. I reassured Mia her mom loves her, but in my own private opinion, Mike is the priority in that family. Our oldest turns 13 in January and wants to go to a concert. We are getting tickets, but obviously we will not be paying for Mike. How do we navigate this with Mia’s mom and our own girls?
—No Boys Allowed
I picked this question because the reality of life is that sometimes there’s nothing to be done. Mia is not your child, and there’s no script I can give you that will magically persuade Mia’s mother to break up the band. You can keep inviting Mia to things. You can tell her mother this is a “just girls” sleepover. That might work, or, more likely, she will just tell you that if you want Mia, you’re getting Mike.
Do I think she is parenting well? No. Do I think she’s neglecting Mia to the point where it constitutes state involvement? No. Do I think she is a “nutcase”? No. I think she’s a very pushy person, also overwhelmed, also hoping to forcibly socialize her son, and also knows this is the one realm in her life right now where she holds all the cards.
What I can recommend is showing Mia extra attention whenever possible. I can also recommend that you plan to buy concert tickets for your daughters and Mia, and tell Mia’s mother that you cannot supervise a 7-year-old autistic child in an environment as busy and sensory-intense as a concert, but if she would like Mike to come, she is welcome to buy herself and him tickets and come look after him. She may tell you to pound sand. But, as you have noticed, that’s an option she has as long as your daughter and Mia are friends. There’s no real answer here. I think you care enough about Mia to want to continue to host her and be a source of love in her life.
And try to learn a little more about Mike. I doubt he’s enjoying himself as the unwanted guest in the next room any more than you enjoy having him.
I recently began working at a wonderful disability nonprofit. I have a few co-workers, but we work in separate offices and all leave promptly at 5, so it’s been difficult to get to know them. I suggested a few weeks ago that we do happy hour together one night, and they were excited to join. We were all eating our appetizers and slurping our drinks, and I began talking with one of my co-workers about my partner, who is nonbinary. She asked their name, and I gave it, and used they/them pronouns. She then asked what their “real” name was, and proceeded to say that oh, she loves that name, and so on. It was fairly awkward, but I truly do not believe she understands that this was a faux pas. It seemed like she just thought my partner “preferred” the name like it was a nickname. We live in a rural-ish (about 10,000 people, state university) town, so I want to give her the benefit of the doubt, as she probably has never met a trans or nonbinary person before. How should I bring this up with her? I do think she’s a good person, but perhaps a bit closed off from culture. The holiday party is around the corner, and I want to bring my partner, but I don’t want them to feel uncomfortable by her or others.
People, I have generally found, do not want to be rude (though we see the exceptions—a lot). This woman absolutely doesn’t sound like she wants to be rude. She just doesn’t know.
Find an opportunity to have a light chat in a private place, catch up on her life, and then say, “Oh, I wanted to mention! [Partner’s name] is excited to meet you at the holiday party, and I realized I hadn’t previously mentioned they were nonbinary. They use they/their pronouns. Also, [name] isn’t a nickname, and they really don’t want to discuss their old name. I’m bringing it up because we’ll probably have trans and nonbinary clients over time, and we didn’t get any training in this stuff!”
I think it’ll be just fine.
Recently one of my favorite cousins died unexpectedly. My girlfriend and I went to lunch with him and his partner about a week prior to his death, and it was her first time meeting them. Her birthday is coming up, and we’ve planned a small party. In an effort to reach out to my cousin’s grieving partner, I invited him to the party without consulting my girlfriend. Now she wants me to disinvite him and tell him the truth about why. She says she doesn’t want his grief to ruin her happy day. I take full responsibility for being insensitive in not asking her permission first, but how in the world can I disinvite him without hurting her feelings?